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The Money’s Gone

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The house on the farm that wasn’t a farm had the cold feel and smell that uninhabited houses have, like faded memories of people, their presence gone stale and uncertain. JJ thought of that town in Japan where the earthquake caused the reactor to melt down, breakfast bowls still on tables and backpacks still in neat circles on classroom carpets.  He turned on the heat to move some molecules and get rid of the chill. They had gone to the bank on the way over. In all his accounts, not counting the value of the farm and the ranch, he had just over $1100 to his name. He was…what’s the term? Illiquid? Yes. He was illiquid and reliant on the ranch rent of an equally poor and unreliable brother and sister in Colorado.

“Hey,” Lila said. “We’re going to be all right.”

“Yup.”

“Really,” she said. “We’ll go back to work.”

“Yup.”

They walked together through the rooms of the house. The last people who lived here were Lila and Carl, who were caretaking. And taking care of each other. A tiny ember inside that he was not even aware of glowed suddenly and started to smolder. The resentment, kept at bay by motion and drama, now flamed up.

“Don’t,” Lila said.

“He hasn’t even called.”

“He’s afraid.”

JJ knew this was true, but the resentment was flaring and consuming the oxygen of his reason. He tried to stifle it for fear of letting the blaze get out of control. Too late…

They drove him away. They drove him out to Colorado where he got drunk and blew the rest of his money. She came to rescue him and tricked him into declaring love. He was dimly aware that he was being consumed by a lie of his disease and he know that he had to do something. He turned away and looked out the kitchen window.

The old view. The barn and the hill sloping down behind. The steeples and water tower in town, visible because the leaves were mostly down. The moodiness of the fall. It reminded him of the previous falls, disappointments, false starts and…rebirths?

“I have to make a call,” he said.

“Oh. Okay.”

He walked out the door to the porch and dialed the number. Two rings. Three rings. A mixture of relief and despair. He had tried.

“Hello.”

“Marty, it’s Jason. From the meeting.”

“Hey, what’s going on?”

And JJ shared the resentment. How Lila, who he loved, and Carl, his best friend from forever had shacked up when JJ got erratic, drunk and angry. How he couldn’t forget it and how it was consuming him. How he loved Lila. Yes, he had told her. But how could they be together with this this…thing, between them. It all came pouring out of him, spilling over like water in an overfilled vessel when it actually raises above the brim before spilling and flooding a table and floor.

“Listen,” Marty said. “Get down on your knees, right where you are. Right now.”

“…”

“Are you on your knees?”

“You mean while we’re on the phone?”

“Yes. Right now.”

JJ looked in the window to see if Lila was watching. He couldn’t see her so he got down on his knees.

“I’m down,” JJ said.

“Good. Now repeat after me. God, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”

“What?”

“Repeat it!”

“God,” JJ said. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”

“I don’t even know if you’re real or not.”

JJ repeated, “I don’t even know if you’re real or not.”

“But please help me not to drink today. I beg you to help me not to drink today.”

JJ repeated it.

“Good,” Marty said. “Now go inside, hug your girl and tell her you’ll see her after the 6:00 meeting.”

“You’ll be there?”

“You bet. I’ll see you there.”

“Ok, thanks.” JJ got off his knees and went inside to hug his girl.

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JJ in AA, Again

 

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A church basement. Upstairs is for those who fear going to hell. Downstairs is for those who’ve already been there. At least that’s what some people say.

After the meeting, Professor Tom stood with some members, laughing at the absurdity of the drinking life and the miracle of getting to live a sober life. JJ waited near the exit door, nervous, feeling he was lying in ambush. The meeting was good, his third since returning from Colorado. Lila was at the Al-anon meeting down the hall, her third since the return, too. It was early, but so far, so good. He hadn’t seen his old sponsor yet and was resolved to clean things up and get back to recovery work.

“I’m glad you waited,” Tom said as he approached JJ at the door. JJ put an awkward hand out but Tom brushed past it and embraced JJ. “Some never come back,” he said next to JJ’s head.

“I’m back for good,” JJ said.

“Or just for today.”

JJ smiled. “Yeah, just for today. A daily reprieve, right?”

“Based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”

“Yeah, about that. I need to get back to work on the steps.”

“Listen,” Tom said. “I’m really glad you’re here, but I can’t sponsor you anymore. I’ve got three other guys and I can’t take time from them.”

“Oh,” JJ said and tried to disguise his disappointment. It was one of those moments, so common for him, when the path forward looked straight and clear, but then the world was revealed as more complex and contrary than assumed. He felt like a child discovering that all that stuff- the house, the car, the water(!)- actually cost money. There was always a price to be paid.

“What I can do is introduce you to a few guys.”

“That would be good.”

“Marty,” Tom called across the room. “C’mere for a minute.”

A guy, younger than Tom, closer to JJ’s age, broke off from another group of people and came over.

“This is Jason,” Tom said. “He just got back from…”

“Out there,” JJ finished, gesturing with his thumb out the window. “And Colorado.”

“Oh yeah? Welcome back,” Marty said, and they shook hands. “I lived there for seven years. The greatest and worst times of my life.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, man,” Marty said. “Listen, a few of us are going to get coffee. You’re welcome to come.”

Once again, a fork in the road. Take the easy way and scurry home to comfort with a residue of shame and self-loathing? Or go out and brave the company of actual people who are trying to do better?

“Last suggestion,” Professor Tom said. “Discard that first instinct. That’s usually your disease.”

He was right, of course. That’s the thing about these sober people, at least the ones who actually work it. They’re always fucking right.

“All right,” JJ said. “I’ll go. I just have to tell my girlfriend.”

“Great,” said Marty. “We’ll meet you in the parking lot.”

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Confrontation in the Valley

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Cody said, “So how’re we gonna make it so you’re gone from our land?”

They stood, the three of them, on the deserted ranch in the mountain valley.

“Cody, listen,” Tess said.

“No, you listen. You hijacked this guy to buy our land back. You took advantage. You saw the opportunity. Good for you. Good for us. Now you think you have feelings for him. Or your ashamed or some such shit.”

JJ said, “Wait, I think we…”

“Shut the fuck up! This here’s a family matter first.”

Tess said, “Yes, I took advantage. But, he’s a really nice guy.”

“You’re confusing nice with scared as shit. This fucker don’t even know where he is.” Cody turned to JJ. “Where are we?”

JJ looked around. Mountain ranges flanked the valley. There was that sense of vastness, glorious and daunting, he always felt in the West. The sky was way up there, far above the land. It was impossible to not feel small and limited out here.   Right-sized. Humility, uncomfortable and undeniable, was forced on you. They were always talking about humility in AA, how humility was the key to sobriety. Well here it was, for real. God’s presence was everywhere, if there was any God at all.

“I’ll tell you where we are,” JJ said. “We’re on my ranch. That’s where we are.”

Birds chirped nearby and the muffled roar of a distant wind grew from way up the valley, way up high.

“And how’re you gonna sign it over,” Cody asked.

“I’m not. I’m keeping it.”

The wind from the heights was coming down the valley now. JJ loved how you could hear it miles away, hear it growing like an approaching train, then it was upon you, sometimes little more than a breeze, sometimes a serious gust. You didn’t know which, but you could hear it coming. Sometimes it missed you entirely.

“Jason,” Tess said, “This here land’s been in our family since…a long time. Our people used to live here. Our parents are dead and you did a good thing buying it from the bank.”

“He wants it for himself,” Cody said. “Maybe I can convince him.” He walked back to his truck and got in.

“Jason, listen,” Tess whispered. “He’s crazy. Just tell him what he wants to hear and then we’ll work something out.”

Cody started the truck, put it in gear, and, engine revving, lurched toward JJ’s rental Camaro. The truck looked like it would drive right over the Hyper-blue metallic sports car, like a fullback breaking through the line and pancaking some defensive back. He skidded to a stop just short of the car. Cody rolled down the window. “Last chance, fucker. We can go back to town all together and straighten this out. Or you can walk back and think more about it. ‘Cause if you don’t tell us what we want to hear, I’m crushing this fuckin car.”

“Cody! No!” Tess ran toward the truck, stopped halfway and looked back at JJ. “Please,” she said. “Please just let us have it.”

“Last chance, sucker,” Cody yelled, revving and lurching the truck closer.

Options scrolled through JJ’s head. A lawyer, letting them have it, renting it to them, buying time, turning the tables…

“All right! Stop!”

“And?”

“I’ll sign it over.”

“He’ll sign,” Tess yelled. “Cody!”

Cody stared at JJ, calculating. Then he shut down the truck as a cold gust finally reached them, rustling sage and shrub, and rolling tumbleweeds down the valley.

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Wings Clipped?

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Sunday night AA. In the parking lot, it’s the meeting after the meeting. Cigarette smokers and laughter. People talking in twos and threes. Two women hugging, one in tears, the other whispering comfort and encouragement.

JJ met with his sponsor, Professor Tom, in the front seat of Tom’s old Chevy pickup (bench seat!). A little close for comfort, from JJ’s perspective. “I’m going on a trip,” JJ said.

Tom didn’t respond right away, but stared into the dark, chewing his gum. He always had some gum going since he quit smoking a few years back. Or so JJ’s been told. He’s only known Tom for about a year, since limping back into the AA fold. Tom asked, “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know,” JJ said. “Me and Lila are going to drive around the country.”

“Why?”

“To be with Lila. To get away for a while.”

Professor Tom chewed and JJ could feel the beginnings of internal squirming. “It’s not a good idea,” Tom said.

I met this guy on the mountain. He inspired me to take a journey.”

“Does this mountain guy know about you? About your love of self-destruction, self-deception, and self-sabotage?”

It’s Mountain Dude, JJ thought. Mountain Dude. “No, but it feels right. I didn’t get sober to not be free. Besides, Lila…we just want to be together.”

Now Tom turned. JJ could just see Tom’s eyes in the yellowish light from a parking lot lamp. There was concern there in the warm depth of his look, but cold skepticism in his squint and cocked eyebrow. “As your sponsor, I suggest you not take any journeys of discovery right now.”

“But…”

“And here are my reasons. One, you’re still a newcomer and only on step three. That’s the only journey you need to be concerned with right now. Two, we often plan our relapses without even knowing it. Three, you won’t be doing any service for other alcoholics while roaming the land. That’s key. And four, the last thing you need is to detach from the roots you’re putting down. You need to stay put and dig deeper.”

“Are you forbidding me to go?”

“It doesn’t work like that. You can do whatever you want. I strongly suggest you stay put, though. For both you and Lila’s sake, if you really want to be with her.”

“It’s different this time.”

“Yeah, you have more to lose than ever. Your house. Lila. The lottery money. You can’t see it, but I promise that you can lose it all and wash up somewhere pretty quick.”

“But…I feel so good. I haven’t wanted to drink at all.”

“Like I said, I can’t stop you. But I strongly suggest you stay close. Go away for the weekend with Lila. What does she say about this?”

Pause. “I haven’t told her.”

“Okay. That’s your assignment. Go tell her what you’re planning for her. Then call me.” Tom reached for the column and started the truck. “Meeting over.”

“Alright, thanks.” JJ hopped out and closed the door. “I’ll call you,” he said through the open window.

“Talk to Lila,” Tom said and drove away.

“That didn’t go well”, JJ thought. “Well, fuck him. Lila will love this.”

So, he went to find out.

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JJ Prays and Dreams

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A humid summer day. JJ knelt beside his bed and tried to pray. He heard a noise and jumped up, embarrassed, and looked to find the cat peering at him from the door. Good ol’ Knuckles knew something was amiss. JJ threw a balled-up sock and the cat scurried away, but not without a look back at the praying lunatic. After a moment, JJ kneeled back down.

“Dear God,” he began. And there was nothing beyond that.

“Just pretend,” Professor Tom had said. “Say thanks for the day, thanks for a sober day, and wrap it up. Keep it simple.”

That was Tom’s favorite slogan from the pantheon of AA slogans. Keep it simple. Ok, then.

JJ said, “Thanks God. Thanks for helping me today.” Then he jumped to his feet like he was caught doing something cruel on his knees, maybe frying ants with a magnifying glass. Once, at nine or ten years old, he had tormented a frog he found, eventually dropping a rock on it and crushing it. This was observed by his father, who was on him in a flash. His father only hit him twice in his life. That was once, a smack right up side the head that left him sprawled in the grass with his right ear ringing. The other time was when he climbed to the top of a tree and refused to come down for the babysitter. He stayed up there until it got dark and the babysitter had no choice but to rat him out. Later, he sat in his room and listened to his mother outside the door. “You go in there and strap him. Take this belt.”

“Jesus, Karen, he’s just a boy doing stupid shit.”

“Strap him! The whole neighborhood saw him up there. They heard him up there.” His father came in and delivered a lukewarm strapping as JJ jumped on the bed, crying and dodging. He remembered the confusion of being relieved that it wasn’t severe but ashamed of his father’s weak brutality. After all, he had probably deserved many a good strapping.

“Great memories,” JJ said to his empty house. “Praying is wonderful.”

Later, restless and tired, JJ lay back on the couch, tried to read, but dozed off. He dreamed of that summer day, crouching over the rock that covered the dead frog. He knew he was going to lift it but was afraid of what he’d see. When he did lift the rock, there was nothing there, just matted grass. He heard a sound and turned, cringing, thinking his father was going to hit him, but it was just Knuckles the cat, looking at him from under the porch. JJ crawled under the porch and that dream thing happened. He emerged into Grand Central Station, in the big room with the booth in the middle and the vast ceiling with the stars. There were so many people streaming in from train tunnels and mingling in a teeming mass, but he was above the fray, on one of the balconies. Then he saw Lila in the crowd, near the booth, distinct among the strangers. And then he saw his mother, dead now, near the ticket windows and he thought maybe this was some purgatory or parody of heaven.

He woke up, sweaty and befuddled, and found his phone. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Are YOU? You sound far away.”

“I’m ok. I’m good. Just woke from a nap, a little disoriented. A bad dream.”

Lila was quiet for a moment, “JJ, it’s ok. I’m ok. Life is going to be ok.”

“Ok,” he said. “It’s ok.”

“Good. Now wake up and come take me to dinner.”

“Ok. That sounds good.” And it was. It was better than ok. It was just right.

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Present Day JJ: Under the Microscope, Squished on a Slide

 

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“Hungry, angry lonely, tired. Are you any of those things?”

“No.”

“Those are the things to look out for,” Professor Tom said. He chewed a cheeseburger, bun crumbs catching in his patient academic beard. Tom taught biology at the university. Or was it physics at the college? JJ wasn’t sure.

“I feel ok,” JJ said.

“You should feel like shit. Most people, and I doubt you’re the exception, feel like shit when they hit bottom. There’s the physical agony, sure. But mostly the pain of losing you’re best friend whiskey, or whatever you’re into.”

“Ok, I feel like shit.”

“That’s the spirit. It’s good to feel like shit.”

JJ picked at some fries. It was all he could stomach in this terrible Burger King. Professor Tom worked on his second cheeseburger with gusto. A piece of bacon stuck out the end of the bun opposite from Tom’s mouth, pointing at JJ, a mocking tongue of BK Bacon. JJ couldn’t take his eyes off it, even as his stomach rolled. He pushed the fries away and sipped his Coke.

“Are you willing to go to any lengths for your sobriety?”

JJ had heard this question before and it still alarmed him, like the first overtures of a cult to a potential convert. He had said yes before, too. And no. It didn’t seem to make a difference. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

Professor Tom stuffed the last piece of cheeseburger, with the floppy bit of bacon, into his mouth and looked at JJ. He chewed and kept looking as JJ squirmed, a specimen under the Professor’s microscope. JJ felt squished and helpless, a bug on a slide, open for scrutiny. Horrible.

“’I don’t know’ is a good place to start.” Tom wiped his mouth and shook his beard free of crumbs. “People sometimes answer too quick. They say yes, but don’t know what that means. But you’re aware of the leap. That can be good or bad. What’s your work situation? Where do you live?”

“I get by for now. Money’s ok.” He did not want to get into the lottery winnings, always in the background, solving nothing, soothing nothing.

“So, you don’t have a job?”

“No.”

“OK, you’re now a fulltime alcoholic in recovery. You will build your day around a meeting, arriving early, helping set up, going for coffee after, no matter how painful. Do you have a girlfriend? Are you married?”

JJ hesitated. What was Lila, exactly? Not his wife, obviously. His girlfriend? More like his ex-girlfriend, now a benefactor, with the potential to move forward to…what? Girlfriend? It was so far beyond words now. They had been, if not together, aware of each other, careening, sometimes touching, since 1989.

“I have a friend,” JJ said. “It’s complicated.”

Professor Tom sighed and gathered up the trash onto his tray. “It usually is,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

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JJ in the 21st Century: They Descend to a Meeting

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They entered the side door of St. Timothy’s, where stairs went up to the nave and down to the basement.  They descended.

“Am I supposed to stay,” Lila asked.

“You’re not leaving, either way,” JJ said.

People were milling, talking, hugging, clapping each other on the shoulder, remembering names, welcoming newcomers.  It all made JJ queasy.  The hale, hearty and healthy men.  The determined, cheerful, and dignified women.  It was horrible.  There were some sullen folk on the periphery and that’s where JJ intended to set up shop.  A huge jolly guy stepped up to them, blocking the way to the back.  “Welcome to the Plug in the Jug Group,” he said.  “I’m Big Red.”

“Jason,” JJ murmured and allowed his hand to be devoured by Big Red’s big calloused paw.  “This is Lila.”

“Terrific,” Big Red said.  “There’s some seats right down front.”

“I think we’ll stay back here.”

Big Red nodded.  “Keep that escape route open, then.  OK.  But, if I was you.  I’d sit down front to hear better.”  Then he winked at Lila and moved on to the next pigeon.

“We’re going down front,” Lila said.

“Lila, people will see us!”

“Let me get this straight, you’ll stagger to the bank, through the lobby with a shopping bag for your cash.  Then scurry out, making a scene.  But you’re afraid to be seen by some strangers trying to get sober?”

“Pretty much.”  The fact was, he had been down this path before.  Sitting near the exit didn’t only provide a physical escape route.  It also reduced the number of people who actually observed his intention to get better.  It left an opening, a gap in his commitment, just in case the program actually started to take hold.  He was afraid it might really work.

“Let’s go,” she said and took his hand.  It was all a blur to JJ as a white noise pressure rose in his head.  They sat in the front row, knees practically against the podium.  The meeting started and the chairperson said, “This is an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.  All are welcome.  Is there anybody new or visiting who would like to identify themselves by first name only?”

JJ felt the old crossroads feeling.  He had been here and many other places before and had not allowed himself to make the hard turn home.  “No fuckin way,” he thought.  “No fuckin…”

“JJ, put your hand up,” Lila whispered.

“No fuckin way,” JJ said.

It was quiet as the chairperson surveyed the room for a moment.  “OK.  Then let’s…”

“My name’s Big Red and I’m an alcoholic.”

The chorus: “Hi Big Red.”  And there were some murmurs.

“Now don’t everyone get their panties all twisted up.  I didn’t drink or nothing.  And I usually don’t do this.  But, I just wanted to welcome the two newcomers down in the front row.”

JJ fought back nausea and panic.  They were now all aware of his presence amongst them.  The chairperson leaned forward over the podium.  “You don’t have to say anything,” she whispered.  “Red can be difficult sometimes.”

But Lila, his one-woman support network, his opinionated and star-crossed lover said in a clear, unembarrassed voice, “My name’s Lila and I’m visiting the group.”

The chorus:  “Hi Lila!”

And, just like that, there was no way out.  “I’m Jason and I’m an alcoholic,” he said.

They thundered, “Hi Jason!”  And then they clapped because he was so obviously hollow and raw and, freely or not, he had crossed some hurdle they all recognized as imperative to getting this thing.  They clapped, then stopped, and the meeting went on.

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